Editor’s note: Over the next several weeks, reporters from the Pocono Record will be examining the impact of gun violence in Monroe County and the Poconos for a series of stories. Read the last installment: Recent violence prompts examination of shootings in the Poconos.
A person’s home is their castle, and they should never have to flee it before using deadly force against an intruder.
This maxim, a common law that dates back hundreds of years, seems like a simple enough statement, one that is embodied in Pennsylvania’s Castle Doctrine.
But, in reality, it is one of the most misconstrued legal concepts when it comes to gun law, according to Monroe County First Assistant District Attorney Michael Mancuso.
The Castle Doctrine — which has been in place for some time, but was amended to include additional protections in 2011 — works like this: If a person unlawfully and forcefully enters your home, your vehicle or workplace, and attempts to kill, harm sexually assault or remove you from your home, Pennsylvania — or any other state that employs the law — allows for the use of deadly force, if immediately necessary.
Castle Doctrine not a ‘license to kill’
The issue here is that there is far more to consider than just a simple assumption that one is permitted to shoot intruders, legal experts say.
“Castle Doctrine isn’t a license to kill. If someone enters your home, they don’t automatically become game in deadly gunfire. There are things that have to happen in the process,” Mancuso said.
According to a guide pamphlet from U.S. Law Shield of Pennsylvania LLC, Castle Doctrine applies if and only if a certain set of criteria is met.
First, the use of deadly force must be justified under the law. Second, the person utilizing said force must be attacked in a location where they have a legal right to be.
That person must be in lawful possession of a firearm and cannot be engaged in criminal activity. And finally, the person or persons attacking a victim employing the doctrine must use or display a firearm or other lethal weapon.
Mancuso said the shooter’s state of mind is a key part of the decision process when it comes to applying Castle Doctrine.
“It all comes down to fear,” Mancuso said. “Self defense is rooted in the emotion of fear, and it’s not just a generalized fear, an anxiety or paranoia — it’s a specific fear. It’s a fear of imminent death or serious bodily injury.”
It must be shown “that the use of deadly force was necessary under those circumstances,” in an objective sense that considers what a reasonable person would do in the situation.
“It’s not a carte blanche, it’s something built into the law that creates assumptions,” Mancuso said, noting that if evidence shows that someone used deadly force for any other reasons besides fear for their life or safety — anger, a desire to prevent a person from leaving a house, for example — the law will not protect them.
Mancuso noted that police and district attorneys, who determine whether a shooting was a crime and charges should be filed, often try to give the person who used a deadly weapon to protect their home the benefit of the doubt, but many things have to be considered.
“(We consider) how (the intruder) got into the house, how their presence was made known, what was the reaction of the person using the deadly force, what was their motivating reason for applying deadly force, and then all of the physical things you can reconstruct from the shooting — distance, lighting conditions, where the victim might have been struck by the weapon, how many times the weapon was fired. All of that has to come into play,” Mancuso said.
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Homicide or self-defense?
Consider the case of Stroudsburg resident Randy Halterman, who shot Adam Schultz and his girlfriend Chastity Frailey after Halterman found the pair inside his home. Schultz, of East Stroudsburg, later died.
The couple happened upon Halterman’s building as they were walking along Paradise Trail on the way to explore the remains of Penn Hills Resort. Frailey said that they assumed the structure, which was surrounded by garbage and debris, to be abandoned.
Schultz initially called out to ask if anyone was inside the building, and when they received no response, the pair entered and explored for about 20 to 25 minutes.
When Frailey joined Schultz on a second floor catwalk to look around further, she pointed a flashlight toward a wall and saw a firearm emerge from behind a covering.
Two shots were fired, and Frailey reported that she felt a “pinch” in her abdomen. Schultz pushed her along the catwalk to escape as several more shots were fired.
Frailey said that she collapsed at the bottom of the staircase, with Schultz landing on top of her legs, pinning her.
“Adam said, he put his hands up and he said, ‘Please stop,’ he said, ‘We didn’t know anybody was here, we said hello, we knocked,’ and he was literally on his knees and the guy shot him,” Frailey said during an interrogation, also noting that she told Halterman she had a one-year-old daughter at home, begging him not to shoot her. “And then he fell over and he said, ‘My heart, help,’ and I didn’t know what to do, I was hiding. And he fell face-down on the stairs and the guy shot him again.”
While many people were quick to defend Halterman’s actions, the details of the case have led to homicide, attempted homicide and aggravated assault charges.
“Sometimes, you need forensic testing, and it may take a while. Sometimes, like in the Halterman case, the answers were readily apparent,” Mancuso said.
“There was cooperation by the defendant that really shed some light on things, and the scene dynamics weren’t that complicated, they were easy to figure out. The fact that there wasn’t any sign of forced entry was readily apparent from examining the structure. Those things are all factored in to the charging decision,” Mancuso said.
In a preliminary hearing for the Halterman case held in March, Magisterial District Judge Michael Muth also noted that the Castle Doctrine would likely not stand as a defense, playing into his decision to maintain the charge of homicide over self-defense.
In a statement released after the hearing, the district attorney’s office reiterated that the application of either a self-defense claim or the Castle Doctrine did not apply.
Halterman said during interrogation that he initially shot Schultz and Frailey because he was “in fear and didn’t know if they were armed.”
However, when asked why he continued to shoot at Schultz as they fled the building, Halterman said his motivation was rooted in “wanting closure, of not trusting the system, and because he couldn’t let them get away.”
Muth said that even if the Castle Doctrine were to be applied in the case, the commonwealth had already overcome its presumption, and that “seeking closure” was not evidence of self-defense, but of murder.
How Castle Doctrine is used
In June 2020, a Cambria County woman fatally shot 45-year-old Thomas Deal, who broke into her home, though in this case, District Attorney Greg Neugebauer stated that his office treated the incident as a justified use of force.
“In the instance of Cambria County, the factual basis was a husband and wife were at home, a gentleman broke into the home and proceeded to ignore commands for him to leave — which they were not required to give commands for him to leave, but commands for him to leave were given — and he refused to leave, and actually (he) attempted to get at a weapon that the wife was pointing at him to get him to leave. At that point, she discharged her weapon.” Neugebauer said.
Cambria County Coroner Jeff Lees said that Deal was within six feet of the homeowner when she fired her gun, providing evidence that he was relatively close to her by the time she used the weapon.
Neugebauer noted that those details indicated the homeowner had a reasonable fear of being harmed or even killed, and thus was justified in using deadly force to stop him.
The details clearly make all the difference in the application of the Castle Doctrine.
The Cambria County homeowner issued clear warnings to Deal before firing, and in ignoring those warnings, It can be inferred that she was in fear for her life, or the lives and safety of her family members.
Back in Monroe County, Mancuso noted another case the district attorney’s office took on in 2018, the 2017 shooting of Lawrence Purcell by Kyle Kresge in Kresge’s Effort home. According to the first assistant district attorney, the case involved “issues of Castle Doctrine, stand your ground, self defense, defense of others, all intertwined.”
Kresge’s attorney argued that his client acted in self-defense. After law enforcement officials and the district attorney’s office analyzed the details of the shooting, however, they determined Castle Doctrine did not apply, and Kresge was convicted with third-degree murder in 2018, and sentenced to 17-34 years in prison.
“One of the things that prevented the application of the Castle Doctrine in that case was the fact that Mr. Kresge was a felon not to possess a weapon, a firearm. So that illegal possession of a firearm was one of the built-in things that takes the case out of the Castle Doctrine,” Mancuso said. “Plus, the house was being used as a tweaker house, a drug house. People were going in there to get high — that’s a misdemeanor and/or felony, so the Castle Doctrine was found inapplicable.”
While district attorneys can justify deadly force under the Castle Doctrine, the common law can also be used as a defense strategy in the courtroom, Fisher & Fisher Law Offices criminal defense attorney Michael Ventrella said. The firm serves the Pocono area.
“Just because the DA decides that it’s not defense, it’s (still) up to the jury to decide. So if the DA says ‘self-defense, we’re not going to charge the person,’ great, no trial. But if the DA says ‘We don’t think it was self-defense, we think he was being outrageous,’ then of course, there will be a difference,” Ventrella said.
At the moment, it is unknown if Halterman’s attorney or attorneys will attempt to claim self-defense or the Castle Doctrine during trial, though it is possible. Some criminal defense attorneys might employ such a strategy, while others would pursue a different approach.
Ventrella referenced the Halterman case as a clear example of a case in which the Castle Doctrine does not necessarily apply, noting that the circumstances of the event exclude it from a situation in which a district attorney would apply it. According to Ventrella, in the Halterman instance, it appears that he was attempting to defend his property, and not himself.
“Yes, it’s your home, and yes, you can defend it. But you have to defend it logically,” Ventrella said. “For example, you can’t put booby traps around your house so if someone comes in they’ll get killed, because you’re not under any threat. In other words, your property doesn’t get the same rights that you as a person have. If you or your family feel threatened by someone breaking into your house, that’s a little bit different.”
In addition, the criminal defense attorney noted that he would not utilize the Castle Doctrine in a situation like Halterman’s if the case were to proceed to trial. When it comes to strategizing for a trial defense, reasonable application of deadly force is a key issue, and requires careful consideration for each unique situation.
“If someone comes to me and the only defense I have is, ‘Look, he was defending himself,’ and he was reasonable, that’s how I would handle it. The whole issue is reasonableness,” Ventrella said. “I could say ‘It happened so quickly, it was dark, he didn’t know, the guy could have had a gun, he acted reasonable.’ I would not feel bad doing a defense like that if I honestly believed my client reasonably was in fear. On the other hand, if it was in the middle of the day, and the guy is out in a field and running away and my client shoots him in the back, I’m going to make a deal.”
Knowing your rights
Mancuso recommends that firearm owners be informed of any and all laws pertaining to the use of their weapons.
Seminars and symposiums that are intended to educate gun owners are hosted frequently across the country, and can provide invaluable information that may save lives, he said.
“It’s a very complex thing,” Mancuso said. “It’s one that, really to do it justice, you really have to delve into it.”
Since education is integral to responsible ownership, most experts encourage those who have or are interested in purchasing firearms to keep abreast of important laws and regulations.
The Pennsylvania State Police offer information freely through their website, including safety videos, firearm forms, and other educational materials for owners to keep up to date with rules and regulations.
Groups like CeaseFirePA also provide gun owners with valuable safety tips and resources. While CeaseFirePA does advocate for some legislative adjustments regarding gun ownership in the commonwealth, they also promote the right for responsible individuals to bear arms.
National groups like U.S. LawShield offer seminars and a variety of resources, books and online courses related to self-defense, and they offer legal protection for those involved in cases where a member used a weapon. However, the organization does require a paid membership.
— Brian Myszkowski is Senior Reporter at the Pocono Record. Reach him by emailing [email protected]